Nearly two years of meetings between cemetery owners, rabbis, and state legislators have produced their first concrete result: Three cemetery owners have signed an agreement that will smooth the way to burials on Sundays and legal holidays, and end the requirement of cash payments to cemeteries that are not equipped to take credit cards.
The rabbis, however, have yet to take a position on the agreement.
Beth Israel Cemetery, Cedar Park Cemetery, and Riverside Cemetery, whose representatives signed the agreement, are among the leading Jewish cemeteries in the state.
The agreement does not deal with all the issues raised over the last five years by the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, including a major Jewish concern: The high price of Sunday burials. Jewish tradition urges that the dead be buried as soon as possible, but not on Shabbat.
The agreement was announced last week in a press release from the office of Assemblyman Gary Schaer, who took part in the meetings along with State Senator Loretta Weinberg. The meetings were facilitated by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federations of Northern New Jersey, and took place at the federation’s offices.
“It’s a tremendous accomplishment,” Schaer said. “When I first dealt with the issue, the only thing I would hear is that no one would sit with anyone else.
“This is not everything that we wanted, but this is a process and certainly further along the road than we have been,” he said.
The Board of Rabbis, which participated in the meetings, has not signed on to it yet, or even discussed it.
“We have not yet gotten around to discussing this agreement,” Rabbi Benjamin Shull, the rabbinical body’s president, said. “We planned to, but circumstances prevented it at our October meeting. We are not yet signatories, and have not taken any formal position as yet. We hope to do so at our November meeting.”
“I’m encouraged by any progress on the issue,” said Rabbi Steven Sirbu, who represented the Board of Rabbis in many of the meetings. He, like Shull, said that the November meeting will be the place to discuss the pact’s terms.
Rabbi Neal Borovitz, who chairs the JCR, was in Israel this week and could not be reached for this story. Schaer said that it his understanding, based on “extensive communication” with Borovitz and other rabbis, that “we all seem to be on board,” although Shull’s and Sirbu’s statements contradict that.
The agreement calls for a meeting in six months, and “periodically thereafter,” to evaluate the progress on the issues.
“Hopefully, we will soon be able to deal with the issue of affordability” of Sunday and holiday burials, Schaer said.
Weinberg said that while “I’m happy we got this far, it’s not the end of the road.
“I admire the rabbis for their ability to articulate their problems, and admire the cemeteries in trying to react in the best way possible,” she said. “I don’t think it replaces legislation.”
Weinberg has had two bills pending in Trenton, which she now hopes to move to committee consideration before the end of the year. One will change the makeup of the state cemetery board, which regulates cemeteries, so it no longer will be made up mostly of cemetery representatives. The other would provide for caps on cemetery fees.
Schaer, however, said he disagreed with Weinberg about the role of legislation, saying he would prefer to deal with the issues through discussion and negotiation, rather than “the strong arm of government.”
“I’ve made it clear to the cemeteries that on my part, as long as the discussions are ongoing and serious, I would rather deal with the matters at hand more informally, rather than under statehouse law,” he said.
In their memorandum of understanding, the cemetery owners commit to raising the question of holiday burials in their next union negotiations. “Reasonable holiday compensation to staff will be offered and appropriate costs passed through to families,” the agreement says.
Holiday burials would be guaranteed if the request is called in before 9 a.m., and would have to take place by 1 p.m. The cemeteries also commit to trying to accommodate requests for burials after their normal hours, when daylight hours permit.
The complete memorandum of understanding can be viewed at http://bit.ly/js-mou.